A phone-based information hotline was set up 40 years ago at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, after the student union was firebombed and two teens were killed. The hotline is still being used today.
A phone-based information hotline was set up 40 years ago at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, after the student union was firebombed and two teens were killed. The hotline is still being used today. iStockphoto.com
Before there was Google or any other search engine, there was a phone-based information hotline at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.
It was set up 40 years ago to control rumors at a time when the campus was embroiled in racial violence and anti-war protests. The student union was firebombed in 1970, the same year violence erupted at Kent State University. A few months after the union burned, two teens were shot and killed at the University of Kansas — and there was a citywide curfew.
Like other campuses across the country, the University of Kansas set up a hotline to try to quell rumors, says historian Doug Harvey.
Surprisingly, the hotline is still being used today.
An Early Version Of Google
Senior Justin Sailer, with cropped hair and a stubbly beard, sits in a small kiosk near the entrance inside the union with a phone in his hand and a slim laptop on his desk. These days, most of the questions he gets are questions like, "Who do I talk to about parking issues in the parking garage?" Sailer tells a student to call the parking garage.
It's rare he gets questions like those of days past.
Kip Grosshans worked at KU Info in a cramped office in the 1970s when the phone line transitioned from a number to call about bomb threats and curfews to everything else. It was a 24-hour service with a cot for the overnight shifts. Grosshans used a Rolodex card system, reference books and newspaper clippings and describes the staff as walking card catalogs.
"Especially some of the more experienced staffers who were there before I started," Grosshans says. "I think back now, that's probably what the people who built Google had in mind, was to have that kind of range of information right at your fingertips."
Brian McClendon, who is now a vice president of engineering at Google, remembers KU Info when he lived in Lawrence.
"KU Info was actually an early version of Google," he says. "It had the information before anyone else did."
McClendon says he called KU Info as a kid to find out if school was closed.
Back in his office, program director Curtis Marsh holds up an index card from 1991 that says: "We've got Carol Brady's maiden name."
"And this looks like they had been looking and looking and looking for this information. And they were only able to obtain it when they found someone who was a real Brady Bunch junkie," he says. "Of course, now what the staff can do is go to Google, type 'Carol Brady's maiden name' and the first thing you see in five seconds is 'Tyler.' "
200 Calls A Day
While KU Info now gets far fewer calls than it used to, it still averages 200 a day. Besides information booths on campus, queries now also come through Facebook, e-mail and text.
So why do people still call KU Info?
"If I had a specific question about KU and couldn't find it on the Web, I'd probably call. The number has been the same — I'd certainly know where to look," McClendon says.
McClendon says he's not surprised it's still around.
"There are still things that aren't put onto the Web as quickly or as accurately as you'd like. The research that the KU Info team does brings this information in. A lot of people don't know how to use the Web or where to look."
But they still know where to call to get answers to almost any question.